5 Keys to Sustaining Effective Workers’ Compensation Telehealth Usage Beyond the Pandemic
It is no secret that telemedicine usage has surged in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the start of the pandemic, we saw a 91% increase in the number of telemedicine visits the first week of April compared to the first week of March, according to workers’ compensation bill review data from Mitchell.
Now, as we look ahead to 2021, the industry is wondering if telemedicine is here to stay in workers’ compensation. Will the industry sustain pandemic-level usage rates?
The answer is a bit complicated.
Telemedicine Benefits for Workers’ Compensation Claims
Even before the pandemic, it was clear that the workers’ compensation industry understood the benefits of using telemedicine to help improve access to care.
A survey conducted by Mitchell in February of 2020 — prior to the start of pandemic-related stay-at-home orders across the U.S. — found that workers’ compensation professionals believed telemedicine was the technology that would have the most significant effect on the industry over the next 10 years.
We’ve all seen these benefits play out as telemedicine usage has surged this year. Telemedicine makes it easier for patients to see a physician. It removes transportation from the equation, provides easier scheduling opportunities and expands access to physicians, so patients aren’t limited by their geographic location. Telemedicine enables the continuation of care when access to physical facilities are limited.
Challenges in Moving Telemedicine Forward
While telemedicine provides obvious benefits, it also comes with a few obstacles that are keeping it from seeing widespread adoption.
First, telemedicine can’t be used for everything. Mitchell’s bill review data shows that the top three procedure codes reported by volume for telemedicine visits since the start of the pandemic for workers’ compensation were either for office visits or therapeutic reasons:
1) 99,213: Office/Outpatient Visit
2) 99,214: Office/Outpatient Visit
3) 97,110: Therapeutic Exercise
In addition to limited applicability, the industry has concerns about personal health information, security and fraud. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve already seen issues with both. For example, the industry recently saw a new $6 billion fraud case, from which $4.5 billion was connected to telemedicine.
And finally, telemedicine may face some regulatory hurdles moving forward.
Though many states changed the rules to widen technology usage during the pandemic, most of those orders came through as time-limited changes. As we head into 2021, states across the country will be faced with writing more permanent rules and regulations that
will ultimately decide the technology’s fate in workers’ compensation. As they write these rules, states will need to work through even more specifics regarding costs for services, approved use-cases and more.
The Path to Sustaining Telemedicine for Years to Come
The good news is that the industry has the capability to overcome most of these challenges. In order to do so, and to sustain and grow telemedicine usage in the industry, there are a few key foundational changes that will need to take place:
1) Technology Innovation: To increase the applicability of telemedicine, the technology will need to undergo significant innovation. Robotics, wearables and virtual reality are just a few potential options that could take telemedicine beyond simple video conferencing and allow for new use cases.
For example, a hospital in Boston has been piloting Spot — a robotic dog — for communications between medical professionals and patients who are potentially contagious with COVID-19. Expanding these types of innovations into everyday telemedicine use outside of the hospital setting will be critical.
Additionally, telemedicine providers will need to look to artificial intelligence (AI) to help improve patient interactions, from simple chatbot support to guide check-in to more sophisticated AI engines that can help provide diagnostic support.
2) Universal Broadband Access: Access to care for injured employees in remote areas has always been challenging, but telemedicine is well poised to help solve this issue. Universal broadband access will be crucial to make sure that patients in all areas can have better telemedicine experiences.
3) Technical Training: Telemedicine’s expansion means that physicians not only need to be medical experts, but they also need to become much more technologically savvy. Medical professionals will need to undergo continuous training for both interacting and diagnosing via video to deliver the same quality care to their patients virtually as they do in their offices.
4) Permanent Regulatory Changes: Legislative updates across the country are crucial to telemedicine’s success in the workers’ compensation industry. The permanent regulations should not only continue to clearly define the appropriate type of treatments and visits that can be conducted virtually, but should also answer some of the most pressing questions the industry is facing today, including how much a telemedicine appointment should cost compared to an in-person visit.
Once the regulations are in place, states will need to keep them up-to-date with any of the innovations mentioned above.
5) Security improvements: And finally, one of the most crucial steps to success—telemedicine will need to get security right in order to develop trust with patients, medical providers, insurance carriers and all other parties involved in the process. Telemedicine technologies need to follow stringent security measures and stay up-to-date with best practices, starting with using HITECH-compliant and HIPAA certified storage solutions and following industry-standard procedures like multi-factor authentication.
In addition to following recommended security practices, telemedicine will need to solve new security challenges as they appear, for example, questions around recording interactions with patients and issues with patients sharing medical information digitally.
While we know telemedicine will continue to have a place in workers’ compensation into the future, how well the industry is able to make the changes above will determine its level of future success and adoption—and how much value it can deliver to patients, physicians and workers’ compensation professionals. &